Introducing the Invisibility Cloak Illusion: We think we’re more observant (and less observed) than everyone else

Agent icon. Spy sunglasses. Hat and glassesBy guest blogger Juliet Hodges

Most of us tend to think we’re better than average: more competent, honest, talented and compassionate. The latest example of this kind of optimistic self-perception is the “invisibility cloak illusion”. In research published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Erica Boothby and her colleagues show how we have a tendency to believe that we are incredibly socially observant ourselves, while those around us are less so. These assumptions combine to create the illusion that we observe others more than they observe us.

As a first step, the researchers asked participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website how much they usually observe other people. Participants indicated that they were more observant of others than they expected the average person to be, whilst they believed they were observed less than other people.

Next the researchers asked students about their experience immediately after lunch in a university canteen. Participants rated themselves almost twice as observant of strangers in the canteen, as these other people were of them. When participants had been dining with friends, they said they had noticed more about their friends than their friends had of them. They also indicated that, when accidentally making eye contact with someone, they felt it was because they were already watching that person – not because they themselves were being watched.

While this provides initial support for the invisibility cloak bias, the researchers also wanted to test this experimentally. They set up a waiting room, where two student participants of the same sex believed they were waiting for the experiment to begin. The participants sat opposite each other for seven minutes, giving them the opportunity to watch one another. They were then taken to separate rooms and given the role of either observer or target (unbeknown to them, whichever role they were given, the other participant was allocated the other role) . The observer’s task was to write down everything they had noticed about the target, while the target’s task was to write down everything they believed the other person would have noticed about them. This process was repeated with multiple pairs of participants and there was a consistent mismatch, showing the invisibility cloak illusion in action: the observers tended to produce far more detailed notes about their fellow participant than the targets expected.

This illusion seems at odds with the “spotlight effect”, which you may recall from a particularly cruel experiment published in 2000: participants were asked to wear a Barry Manilow t-shirt in public, and were convinced more people noticed it than actually had. To understand how the spotlight effect and the invisibility cloak illusion could coexist, the Boothby and her colleagues repeated the waiting room experiment. The only difference was some of the targets wore a t-shirt with a large image of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar on it. Targets wearing the t-shirt overestimated how noticeable it was to the observer, replicating the spotlight effect. However, this did not generalise beyond the t-shirt, as they didn’t suspect observers had noticed anything else about them. This shows that the two biases are not incompatible; one can be self-conscious about a particular aspect of themselves, while still believing they go less noticed on the whole.

The mechanisms behind the invisibility cloak illusion seem fairly straightforward. We know we have lots of private thoughts about what we’ve noticed of other people, but we mistakenly overlook that most other people have these kind of private thoughts too. This is compounded by the fact that, when observing others, most of us are careful to be discreet –  looking away or pretending to be engrossed in something else – with the result that we rarely notice when other people are watching us. The researchers suggest that this illusion could even be beneficial as it helps us feel a sense of control, a theory that needs to be investigated further.

We need more research to test the robustness of this illusion, especially with older participants. If it does replicate, it may have important implications for our social interactions. For example, it suggests we are likely to underestimate the impact our actions have on others. Take emergency situations: we may look to others to see how they are reacting, while not realising that they in turn are taking their cues from us. It’s worth remembering that we are just as present, and visible, as everyone else.

At the same time, these new findings may be disconcerting for anyone who suffers from painful self-consciousness. But it’s worth remembering that people typically aren’t paying attention to what we’re self-conscious about. Moreover, being observed is not the same thing as being judged. Our own observations of others typically drift through our minds without us paying them much attention – in that regard, the part of the new research in which participants wrote down what they noticed about each other was a rather unnatural task. In real life, it’s likely these details would be forgotten quickly. Earlier, more comforting studies have also shown that other people tend to judge us far less harshly and with more empathy, even when we think we’ve embarrassed ourselves, than we expect.

The invisibility cloak illusion: People (incorrectly) believe they observe others more than others observe them

Juliet Hodges photo

Post written for the BPS Research Digest by Juliet Hodges. Juliet has a background in psychology and behavioural economics, and has applied this in advertising and now healthcare. Follow @hulietjodges on TwitterLinkedIn or read her posts for the Bupa Newsroom here.